New Jersey residents are being warned about a dangerous new threat to public safety in cities, the suburbs and rural areas alike:

Kids.

During a special hearing in Trenton, Lee Seglem, the executive director of the State Commission of Investigation said the threat is being posed by neighborhood gangs comprised of children.

“Communities across this state are confronting a resurgence of street violence, but not at the hands of adult gang-bangers necessarily in known and readily identifiable groups like the Bloods and the Crips,” he said. “Children as young as 12 or 14 years old are picking up guns to kill and maim each other and anyone else who might get in the way.”

He described the violence of neighborhood gangs as chaotic and unpredictable.

“It’s where the slightest personal affront, even a perceived insult can trigger mayhem, where teens and pre-teens almost routinely settle adolescent tussles with deadly weapons," he said.

He said social media sites are being used as electronic billboards “for distinctly anti-social activity used to pick fights, display weaponry, recruit new members and threaten the police.”

Special Agent Edwin Torres, an investigator and gang expert with the State Commission of Investigation, said what’s happening is shocking and disturbing.

“Neighborhood-based gangs involving juveniles are proliferating throughout the state. They are more dangerous and violent now than traditional gangs," he said.

He said the goal of most established gangs is to make money by controlling prostitution rings, or selling drugs — but with neighborhood gangs, it’s different.

“In some cases, some of these gangs are simply interested in establishing their reputation through violence," he said. "Therefore their violence is more random, more chaotic.”

He said the vast majority of these neighborhood gang members are well-armed, and “they’re using anything you can imagine — AK 47s, long arms, AR 15s, hollow-point bullets, armor piercing rounds.”

Joseph Iacovone, a retired sergeant with the Atlantic City Police Department, told members of the commission neighborhood gang disputes have resulted in several shootings in crowded residential neighborhoods and roadways.

He said in June of 2014, a school crossing guard was caught in the crossfire of a shootout and injured, in May of 2015, a woman who was at a child’s birthday party at a public housing complex was wounded during a gang shootout. In March of 2016 there was a shooting at the Taj Mahal hotel, on the 47th floor.

Torres said cracking down on neighborhood gangs is challenging because they frequently have no specific leader, or people may take turns leading the gang, based who whoever exhibits the most violent dangerous behavior for a day or period of time.

“They’re ultra violent. They also use social media and music for intimidation, retaliation, threatening and confrontational purposes," Torre said.

He said the mindset of these gangs is to use social media as a form of modern day graffiti to send a message — "and when I put something online it’s not going to be something nice, it’s going to be something to intimidate, threaten, or I’m going to show people my power, my weapons, my guns my drugs."

He went on to say “they have weaponized social media and pose a clear and present danger to public safety.”

Seglem said this is a world that law enforcement is struggling to catch up to, and a world where kids expect to die in violence.

He said the overall crime rate in New Jersey has dropped in recent years, but “what is happening within this particular social sub-set defies that conventional wisdom.”

He said while the Garden State has made considerable progress in developing alternatives to incarceration for juvenile offenders, “law enforcement officials report at the front end at street level, youth violence has mushroomed to a crisis point.”

The SCI hearing was the first step in a multi-step process that ultimately will produce a report on the entire scope of the problem of neighborhood gangs, including discussions about the problem can be addressed.

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com